Trolling for Cats
Trolling for Catfish - By Tim Mead
Mac Byrum carefully laid out the rig he was tying. While Mac was never an educator, he sure is a teacher. And today his pupil was my fishing buddy Jack Murphy. Jack, 7-years old, is the son of one of my former students. For reasons she does not fathom as neither she nor Jack’s father is interested, Jack did. Consequently, to our mutual advantage, Jack ended up with me. And today we were going to catch some catfish on North Carolina’s Lake Norman.
And, unlike the most common angler approach to reservoir catfish, we were going to troll. Trolling for catfish is an overlooked technique. Ken Schultz, in his excellent book The Art of Trolling, makes nary a mention of catfish. Neither Jeff Samsel in Catfishing in the South or Keith Sutton in Fishing for Catfish mention trolling, though both provide a brief discussion of drift-fishing. Yet, drifting is not trolling where the angler provides more direct control of the path baits will take.
Why troll? Moving trolled baits permits anglers to present those baits to many more fish than anchoring and waiting for catfish to rely on their sense of smell to approach. If the catfish are scattered, as is often the case, chances are moving along productive spots, in contrast to sitting on a single location, will present bait to many more catfish. And, trolling the way Mac does, presents baits to a variety of depths, searching out the spots where catfish may be on a given day. At times the range of depths may be as great as 5-feet on the shallow rig and 45- or 50-feet on the deepest.
Mac explained to Jack “This is the business end of the rig. This is how we are going to catch catfish.” Mac's rigs terminate with a circle hook, size 3/0 to 8/0, depending on the bait available and the catfish that have been caught in the last few days. He said, “If the bait is pretty large or we have been catching big cats, blues 20-pounds or more or some of the big flatheads, I use a bigger hook.” Though Jack probably did not pick up on the details of Mac’s instructions, Mac’s notion clearly was to keep putting lessons in Jack’s way, knowing some of the content would stick.
Within minutes of pulling away from the boat landing, Mac and I were putting the rigs in the water. Each state varies in the number of rods a single angler may have in the water. In North Carolina, with three anglers in the boat, we could use six rods at a single time. Before putting lines in the water, check to confirm that the number of rigs used correspond to the requirements of the state.
After the first rig was in the water, Mac turned on his powerful trolling motor. Mac fishes out of a substantial boat and a big trolling motor is needed. We began to move slowly along the shore. He explained later, “Maximum speed drifting with the wind or using the trolling motor is half a mile per hour. During hot weather conditions, when the surface temperature is 85 degrees and up, I sometimes increase the speed to three-quarters of a mile per hour. We’ve developed this trolling speed over the years. It appears the slower you can go and still be moving the baits through the water, the more bites you get.”
Rigs were scarcely in the water before one of the starboard rods dipped and did not pop back up. If the rod tip lowers and then recovers, chances are the sinker has briefly snagged on the bottom. Mac yelled, “Jack, Jack, get back her. There’s a catfish on that rod. You don’t have to jerk to set the hook. The circle hook will rotate right into the corner of the fish’s mouth without any ‘hook setting’ by the angler.” I pulled the rod out of the holder and gave it to Jack.
Jack is a stout little guy, but the 3-pound catfish gave him plenty of tussle as he brought it in. On an earlier trip with me, we released all the fish we caught. On this trip, Jack had promised his mom we would bring some fish home for dinner, so this blue cat went in Mac’s live well.
By the time all Mac’s rigs were in the water, we had four rigs directly behind the boat and two more off to the side on planer boards. Mac’s spread may be 80 feet or more, depending on the width of the area he’s fishing. If he’s running fairly close to the numerous piers and docks on Lake Norman, the spread is narrower than if he is fishing a flat without getting close to shoreline obstructions. Wherever serious trolling for catfish is done, the spread with side boards need to be adjusted to the available catfish cover.
Many catfish anglers, whether trolling or anchored, keep baits within 25- or 30-feet of the boat. Not so, Mac. Mac said to me, “You’ve fished with me before. You know I run the lines way out. The innermost rigs will be out 125-feet or more, the next two are usually between 90- and 100-feet behind the boat, and the corner rigs, the ones attached to planer boards, are typically about 75-feet back of the boat.”
We made our way gradually down the shoreline, varying from 50- to 70-feet from the bank. With a constant eye on the depth finder, Mac steered the boat around points, in-and-out among the piers and docks. Mac’s preferred pattern is to work underwater trenches, channels, humps, drop-offs and slopes. On the screen, Mac showed Jack when we passed over fish. “Be alert, Jack,” Mac said, “we’re about to bring that outside bait right over another catfish.” In another few seconds, the suspected rod tip dipped, stayed down, and Jack fought another catfish to the boat. Now his mother had a couple of fish whose fillets would make a family dinner.
Mac uses fairly soft rods, what he describes as “medium to medium light” action. My favorite catfish trolling rod is a 7-foot Shakespeare catfish rod. The relatively soft action of these rods is just the ticket for use with the circle hooks. The soft action does not alert the catfish that something is wrong. As the fish pulls the line tight, the circle hook slides into the corner of the catfish’s mouth. No hook set required. Fish on!
Mac’s reels are bait casters, sized by many manufacturers as 6500. The Pflueger Trion 66 I have on my catfish rig, has a line capacity of 260 yards of 14-pound test line and an on-off clicker system which both alerts an angler when line is being pulled off when trolling yet maintains tension on the line until the rod can be lifted from a rod holder.
In order to keep our baits near the bottom, Mac relies on a ¾ ounce to 1-ounce slinky sinker. The slinky sinker slides through rocks and debris on the bottom. Another option would be the bottom bouncer style sinkers used by walleye anglers. Either will pull the bait toward the bottom where the catfish are waiting.
Yet, Mac does not want to be tangled on the bottom constantly. So, between the sinker and the bait, he slips the leader through a hollow bobber, the sort used by crappie or walleye anglers as slip sinkers. Mac showed Jack how the system worked. He said, “From the barrel swivel where I just tied the sinker, I’m tying a shock leader about 30-inches long. It’s a pretty stout piece, about 40- to 60-pound test. I vary the strength of the leader depending on whether we’ll be fishing in stumps, downed trees, or in relatively open water. And on the shock leader, I’m putting on the bobber. The bobber will float off the bottom and hold the bait right where we want it, about a foot off the bottom.”
When Mac fished with Jack and me, we used cut pieces of skipjack herring. Mac explained, “The preferred bait is something that is native to the waters you are fishing. I like bluegills, white perch, crappie, striper meat, bass meat, shad, blueback herring, and skipjack herring.” Mac cuts the available bait fish into lumps a couple of inches square. State regulations vary; be sure what you chose is legal wherever you try this method.
As Jack was digging through the “goodie pouch” his mother sent, one of the rods on the port dipped toward the water. Mac lifted the rod and called Jack. “Jack,” Mac said, “better come grab this rod. This feels like a pretty good fish.”
Jack hustled to the rear of the boat and took the rod. While Jack cranked, line went out. No doubt, this was a bigger fish. Jack looked at me and said, “I can’t bring this fish in. It’s too heavy.”
I answered, “Jack, no one else is going to do it. You’ll have to do it yourself.” Mac coached Jack on keeping his rod tip up to maintain tension on the line, to reel the rod tip down toward the water and then lift it to bring the fish toward the boat. Gradually, Jack pulled the catfish in and Mac netted it. It was a blue cat, about 7-pounds.
Jack said, “This is a lot bigger than the one I caught in the pond by our house.”
I asked, “What will your buddy Hayden think about this?”
Jack answered, “Oh, Hayden won’t believe it, that I caught a catfish this big.”
While this was the biggest catfish Jack caught on this trip, it was one of 9 he caught in three hours. And in the numerous times I have trolled for catfish with Mac, we have always caught fish – blues and flatheads primarily, though channel cats also fall to trolling. And trolling is a trophy method as well. The part I don’t understand is why systematic trolling for catfish is not more common. Just leaves more for Jack and me.
Last updated on ...March 10, 2010